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This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted to zNet, July 16, 2009.
On May 1st at Fort Hood in central Texas, Specialist Victor Agosto wrote on a counseling statement, which is actually a punitive U.S. Army memo:
"There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect."
Ten days later, he refused to obey a direct order from his company commander to prepare to deploy and was issued a second counseling statement. On that one he wrote, "I will not obey any orders I deem to be immoral or illegal." Shortly thereafter, he told a reporter, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is completely wrong. It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with."
Agosto had already served in Iraq for 13 months with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. Currently on active duty at Fort Hood, he admits, "It was in Iraq that I turned against the occupations. I started to feel very guilty. I watched contractors making obscene amounts of money. I found no evidence that the occupation was in any way helping the people of Iraq. I know I contributed to death and human suffering. It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I know I contributed to it."
Even though he was approaching the end of his military service, Agosto was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan under the stop-loss program that the Department of Defense uses to retain soldiers beyond the term of their contracts. At least 185,000 troops have been stop-lossed since September 11, 2001.
Agosto betrays no ambivalence about his willingness to face the consequences of his actions:
"Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or people at the top. They're not responsive to people, they're responsive to corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers."
Today, Agosto's remains a relatively isolated act in an all-volunteer military built to avoid the dissent that, in the Vietnam era, came to be associated with an army of draftees. However, it's an example that may, soon enough, have far greater meaning for an increasingly overstretched military plunging into an expanding Afghan War seemingly without end, even as its war in Iraq continues. Avoiding Battle
Writing on his blog from Baquba, Iraq, in September 2004, Specialist Jeff Englehart commented: "Three soldiers in our unit have been hurt in the last four days and the true amount of army-wide casualties leaving Iraq are unknown. The figures are much higher than what is reported. We get awards and medals that are supposed to make us feel proud about our wicked assignment..."
Over the years, in response to such feelings, some American soldiers have come up with ingenious ways to express defiance or dissent on our distant battlegrounds. These have been little noted in the mainstream media, and when they do surface, officials in the Pentagon or in Washington just brush them aside as "bad apple" incidents (the same explanation they tend to use when a war crime is exposed).
But in the stories of men and women who served in the occupation of Iraq, they often play a different role. In October 2007, for instance, I interviewed Corporal Phil Aliff, an Iraq War veteran, then based at Fort Drum in upstate New York. He recalled:
"During my stints in Iraq between August 2005 and July 2006, we probably ran 300 patrols. Most of the men in my platoon were just in from combat tours in Afghanistan and morale was incredibly low. Recurring hits by roadside bombs had demoralized us and we realized the only way we could avoid being blown up was to stop driving around all the time. So every other day we would find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell them we were searching for weapon caches in the fields and everything was going fine. All our enlisted people had grown disenchanted with the chain of command."
Aliff referred to this tactic as engaging in "search and avoid" missions, a sardonic expression recycled from the Vietnam War when soldiers were sent out on official "search and destroy" missions.
Sergeant Eli Wright, who served as a medic with the 1st Infantry Division in Ramadi from September 2003 through September 2004, had a similar story to tell me. "Oh yeah, we did search and avoid missions all the time. It was common for us to go set camp atop a bridge and use it as an over-watch position. We would use our binoculars to observe rather than sweep, but call in radio checks every hour to report on our sweeps."
According to Private First Class Clifton Hicks, who served in Iraq with the First Cavalry from October 2003, only six months after Baghdad was occupied by American troops, until July 2004, search and avoid missions began early and always had the backing of a senior non-commissioned officer or a staff sergeant. "Our platoon sergeant was with us and he knew our patrols were bullshit, just riding around to get blown up," he explained. "We were at Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport. A lot of the time we'd leave the main gate and come right back in another gate to the base where there's a big PX with a nice mess hall and a Burger King. We'd leave one guy at the Humvee to call in every hour, while the others stayed at the PX. We were just sick and tired of going out on these stupid patrols."
These understated acts of refusal were often survival strategies as well as gestures of dissent, as the troops were invariably undertrained and ill-equipped for the job of putting down an insurgency. Specialist Nathan Lewis, who was deployed to Iraq with the 214th Artillery Brigade from March 2002 through June 2003, experienced this firsthand. "We never received any training for much of what we were expected to do," he said when telling me of certain munitions catching fire while he and other soldiers were loading them onto trucks, "We were never trained on how to handle [them] the right way."
Sergeant Geoff Millard of the New York Army National Guard served at a Rear Operations Center with the 42nd Infantry Division from October 2004 through October 2005. Part of his duty entailed reporting "significant actions," or SIGACTS -- that is, attacks on U.S. forces. In an interview in 2007 he told me, "When I was there at least five companies never reported SIGACTS. I think 'search and avoids' have been going on for a long time. One of my buddies in Baghdad emails that nearly each day they pull into a parking lot, drink soda, and shoot at the cans." Millard told me of soldiers he still knows in Iraq who were still performing "search and avoid" missions in December 2008. Several other friends deploying or redeploying to Iraq soon assured him that they, too, planned to operate in search and avoid mode.
Corporal Bryan Casler was first deployed to Iraq with the Marines in 2003, at the time of the invasion. Posted to Afghanistan in 2004, he returned to Iraq for another tour of duty in 2005. He tells of other low-level versions of the tactic of avoidance: "There were times we would go to fix a radio that had been down for hours. It was purposeful so we did not have to deal with the bullshit from higher [ups]. In reality, we would go so we could just chill out, let the rest of the squad catch up on some rest as one stood guard. It's mutual and people start covering for each other. Everyone knows what the hell's going on."
Staff Sergeant Ronn Cantu, an infantryman who was deployed to Iraq from March 2004 to February 2005, and again from December 2006 to January 2008, said of some of the patrols he observed while there: "[They] wouldn't go up and down the streets like they were supposed to. They would just go to a friendly compound with the Iraqi police or the Kurdish Peshmerga [militia] and stay at their compound and drink tea until it was time to go back to the base."
As a Stryker armored combat vehicle commander in Iraq from September 2004 to September 2005, Sergeant Seth Manzel had figured out a way to fabricate on screen the movement of their patrol and so could run computerized versions of a search and avoid mission. As he explained: "Sometimes if they called us up to go and do something, we would swiftly send computer reports that we were headed in that direction. On the map we would manually place our icon to the target location and then move it back and forth to make it appear as though we were actually on the ground and patrolling. This was not an isolated case. Everyone did it. Everyone would go and hide somewhere from time to time."
Former Sergeant Josh Simpson, who served as a counter-intelligence agent in Iraq from October 2004 to October 2005, said he witnessed instances of faked movement. "I knew soldiers who learned to simulate vehicular movement on the computer screen, to create the impression of being on patrol," said Simpson. "There's no doubt that people did it." Saying "No" One at a Time "There was nothing to be done," Corporal Casler says of his time in Iraq, "no progress to be made there. Dissent starts as simple as saying this is bullshit. Why am I risking my life?"
Sometimes such feelings have permeated entire units and soldiers in them have refused to follow orders en masse. One of the more dramatic of these incidents occurred in July 2007. The 2nd Platoon of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, in Baghdad had lost many men in its 11 months of deployment. After a roadside bomb killed five more, its members held a meeting and agreed that it was no longer possible for them to function professionally. Concerned that their anger might actually touch off a massacre of Iraqi civilians, they staged a quiet revolt against their commanders instead.
Kelly Kennedy, a reporter with the Military Times embedded with Charlie Company prior to the revolt, described the shape the platoon members were in by that time: "[T]hey went right to mental health and they got sleeping medications, and they basically couldn't sleep and reacted poorly. And then, they were supposed to go out on patrol again that day. And they, as a platoon, the whole platoon -- it was about 40 people -- said, 'We're not going to do it. We can't. We're not mentally there right now.'"
In response, the military broke up the platoon. Each individual involved was also "flagged" so he would not get a promotion or receive any award due.
To this day, troops in Iraq continue to be plagued by equipment and manpower shortages, and work long hours in an extreme climate. In addition, their stress levels are regularly raised by news from home of veterans returning to separations and divorces, and of a Veteran's Administration often ill-equipped and unwilling to provide appropriate physical and psychological care to veterans.
While no broad poll of troops has been conducted recently, a Zogby poll in February 2006 found that 72% of soldiers in Iraq felt the occupation should be ended within a year. My interviews with those recently back from Iraq indicate that levels of despair and disappointment are once again on the rise among troops who are beginning to realize, months after the Obama administration was ushered in, that hopes of an early withdrawal have evaporated.
With the Afghan War heating up and the Iraq War still far from over, even if fighting there is at far lower levels than at its sectarian heights in 2006 and 2007, with stress and strain on the military still on the rise, dissent and resistance are unlikely to abate. In addition to small numbers of outright public refusals to deploy or redeploy, troops are going absent without official leave (AWOL) between deployments, and actual desertions may once again be on the rise. Certainly, there's one strong indication that despair is indeed growing: the unprecedented numbers of soldiers who are committing suicide; the Army's official suicide count rose to 133 in 2008, up from 115 in 2007, itself a record since the Pentagon began keeping suicide statistics in 1980. At least 82 confirmed or suspected suicides have been reported thus far in 2009, a pace that indicates another grim record will be set; and suicide, though seldom thought of in that context, is also a form of refusal, an extreme, individual way of saying no, or simply no more.
According to Sergeant Simpson, here's how a feeling of discontent and opposition creeps up on you while you're on duty: The part of the war you're involved in, interrogating Iraqis in his case, "doesn't make any sense. You realize that the whole system is flawed and if that is flawed, then obviously the whole war is flawed. If the basic premise of the war is flawed, definitely the intelligence system that is supposed to lead us to victory is flawed. What that implies is that victory is not even a possibility."
After finishing his tour in Iraq, Simpson joined the Reserves because he believed it would grant him a two-year deferment from being called up, but he was called up anyway. In his own case, he says, "I thought to myself, I can't do this anymore. First of all, it's bad for me mentally because I'm doing something I loathe. Second, I'm participating in an organization that I wish to resist in every way I can.
"So," he says, "I just stopped showing up for drill, didn't call my unit, didn't give them any reason for it. I changed my telephone number and they did not have my address." Eventually, he reached the end date of his contract and managed to graduate from Evergreen State University in Washington. "I don't know if technically I'm still in the reserves," he told me. "I don't know what my situation is, but I don't really care either. If I go to jail, I go to jail. I'd rather go to jail than go to Iraq." Unready and Unwilling Reserves Sergeant Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion -- the same battalion as Agosto, who served north of the Iraqi capital -- recently went AWOL from his station at Fort Hood, Texas, when his unit deployed to Afghanistan. He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on moral grounds.
On his blog, he puts his position this way: "I love my country, but I believe that this particular war is unjust, unconstitutional and a total abuse of our nation's power and influence. And so, in the next few days, I will be speaking with my lawyer, and taking actions that will more than likely result in my discharge from the military, and possible jail time... and I am prepared to live with that.... My father said, 'Do only what you can live with, because every morning you have to look at your face in the mirror when you shave. Ten years from now, you'll still be shaving the same face.' If I had deployed to Afghanistan, I don't think I would have been able to look into another mirror again."
I spoke with him briefly after he turned himself in at his base in early June. He said he'd chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal, which had inspired him, and wanted to be present at his post to accept the consequences of his actions. He, too, hoped others might follow his lead. (He and Agosto, now in similar situations, have become friends.)
Agosto, whose hope has been to set an example of resistance for other soldiers, sees Bishop's refusal to deploy to Afghanistan as a personal success and says, "I already feel vindicated for what I'm doing by his actions. It's nice to see some immediate results."
His actions, he's convinced, have affected the way his fellow soldiers are now looking at the war in Afghanistan. "The topic has come up a lot in conversation, with soldiers on base now asking, 'What are we doing in Afghanistan? Why are we there?' People feel compelled to bring this up when I'm around. Even the ones that disagree with me say it's great what I'm doing, and that I'm doing what a lot of them don't have the courage to do. If anything, the people I work with have now been treating me better than ever."
On May 27th, rejecting an Article 15 -- a nonjudicial punishment imposed by a commanding officer who believes a member of his command has committed an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- Agosto demanded to be court-martialed.
According to Agosto, the Army has now begun the court martial process, but has not yet set a trial date. Bishop, too, awaits a possible court martial.
On June 1st, a day when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, Agosto told me in a phone call from Fort Hood, "I haven't had to disobey any orders lately. A sergeant asked me if it'd be okay if I had to follow orders, and I said no, and they didn't force it."
Agosto and Bishop are hardly alone. In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80% increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42% from 2006 to 2007 alone.
U.S. Army Specialist André Shepherd joined the Army on January 27, 2004. He was trained in Apache helicopter repair and sent first to Germany, then was stationed in Iraq from November 2004 to February 2005, before being based again in Germany. Shepherd went AWOL in southern Germany in April 2007 and lived underground until applying for asylum there in November 2008, making him the first Iraq veteran to apply for refugee status in Europe.
He, too, has refused further military service because he feels morally opposed to the occupation of Iraq. While he awaits word from the German government and is still technically AWOL, Shepherd is being supported by Courage to Resist, a group based in Oakland, California, which actively assists soldiers who refuse to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.
A counselor and administrative associate at that organization, Adam Szyper-Seibert, points out that "in recent months there has been a dramatic rise of nearly 200% in the number of soldiers that have contacted Courage to Resist." Szyper-Seibert suspects this may reflect the decision of the Obama administration to dramatically increase efforts, troop strength, and resources in Afghanistan. "We are actively supporting over 50 military resisters like Victor Agosto," Szyper-Seibert says. "They are all over the world, including André Shepherd in Germany and several people in Canada. We are getting five or six calls a week just about the IRR [Individual Ready Reserve] recall alone."
The IRR is composed of troops who have finished their active duty service but still have time remaining on their contracts. The typical military contract mandates four years of active duty followed by four years in the IRR, though variations on this pattern exist. Ready Reserve members live civilian lives and are not paid by the military, but they are required to show up for periodic musters. Many have moved on from military life and are enrolled in college, working civilian jobs, and building families.
At any point, however, a member of the Ready Reserve can be recalled to active duty. This policy has led to the involuntary reactivation of tens of thousands of troops to fight the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Jack C. Stultz, the Chief of the U.S. Army Reserve and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Reserve Command, told Congress on March 3rd that, since September 11, 2001, the Army has mobilized about 28,000 from the Reserves. There have been 3,724 Marines involuntarily recalled and mobilized during that same period, according to Major Steven O'Connor, a Marine Corps spokesman. (According to Major O'Connor, as of May 2009, the Marines are no longer recalling individuals from the IRR.)
Ironically, under a new commander-in-chief whom many voters believed to be anti-war, the Army is continuing its Individual Ready Reserve recalls. "The IRR recall has not seen any change since Obama became president," Sarah Lazare, the project coordinator for Courage to Resist, says. "It's difficult to predict what the Obama administration's policy will be in the future regarding the IRR, but definitely they haven't made any moves to stop this practice."
Needing boots on the ground, according to Lazare, the military continues to fall back on the Ready Reserve system to fill the gaps: "Since these are experienced troops, many of them have already served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan." Lazare adds, "When Obama announced his Afghanistan surge, we got a huge wave of calls from soldiers saying they didn't want to be reactivated and to please help them not go." The Future of Military Dissent
Right now, acts of dissent, refusal, and resistance in the all-volunteer military remain small-scale and scattered. Ranging from the extreme private act of suicide to avoidance of duty to actual refusal of duty, they continue to consist largely of individual acts. Present-day G.I. resistance to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan cannot begin to be compared with the extensive resistance movement that helped end the Vietnam War and brought an army of draftees to the point of near mutiny in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the ongoing dissent that does exist in the U.S. military, however fragmented and overlooked at the moment, should not be discounted.
he Iraq War boils on at still dangerous levels of violence, while the war in Afghanistan (and across the border in Pakistan) only grows, as does the U.S. commitment to both. It's already clear that even an all-volunteer military isn't immune to dissent. If violence in either or both occupations escalates, if the Pentagon struggles to add more boots on the ground, if the stresses and strains on the military, involving endless redeployments to combat zones, increase rather than lessen, then the acts of Agosto, Bishop, and Shepherd may turn out to be pathbreaking ones in a world of dissent yet to be experienced and explored. Add in dissatisfaction and discontent at home if, in the coming years, American treasure continues to be poured into an Afghan quagmire, and real support for a G.I. resistance movement may surface. If so, then the early pioneers in methods of dissent within the military will have laid the groundwork for a movement.
"If we want soldiers to choose the right but difficult path, they must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will be supported by Americans." So said First Lieutenant Ehren Watada of the U.S. Army, the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse a combat deployment to Iraq. (He finally had the military charges against him dropped by the Justice Department.) The future of any such movement in the military is now unknowable, but keep your eyes open. History, even military history, holds its own surprises.
I was waiting for this article to be published, as I had spoken to the author at Winter Soldier and was surprised to see nothing published.
Original article, War Torn Vets Speak Out, by Claudia Feldman was published in the Houston Chronicle, April 18, 2008
Hart Viges walks the streets of Austin in a tunic and carries a sign that reads, "Jesus Against War." It's one of many ways, he says, that he must atone for his actions as an American soldier in Iraq.
Army Sgt. Ronn Cantu says lingering memories of killing a civilian in Iraq led him to start a chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War at his home — Fort Hood.
And in Houston, Chris Hauff, an Iraq War vet who returned from combat two years ago, wrestles with the feeling that his best friend died in a misguided war.
"The idea that American soldiers are there to spread democracy and liberate the people is all smoke and mirrors," Hauff says.
After five years and more than 4,000 American deaths, hundreds of anti-war Iraq veterans and even some active-duty soldiers are speaking out in protest. Though they make up a relatively small percentage of all the soldiers who have served, certainly they speak from experience. They've had their boots on the ground.
Nationally, more than 1,000 have joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is calling for an immediate troop pullout. At a recent IVAW conference in suburban Washington, D.C., 60 vets addressed about 400 peers. Collectively, they described American soldiers unraveling under pressure — devolving from fighting for freedom and defending innocents to saving their own lives, protecting their friends and getting revenge.
Viges, tall and reed-slim, spoke as if his entry to heaven were on the line.
"I joined the Army right after September 11th," he began. He ended with, "I don't know how many innocents I've helped kill. ...
"I have blood on my hands."
His story, common among the speakers, began with good intentions and patriotic zeal. Then he realized he couldn't tell friend from enemy, and as he dodged mortar fire and roadside bombs, he feared each new day was going to be his last.
In that atmosphere, Viges and other soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division aimed countless mortar rounds at the town of As Samawah, southeast of Baghdad. They were trying to root out insurgents, but to this day, Viges doesn't know whom or what they hit.
"This wasn't army to army," Viges said. "People live in towns."
The panelists' speeches were vetted ahead of time by two groups of veterans who scoured news accounts, researched documents, videos and photographs where available, and interviewed others who were present at the time.
The testimonials were sobering. They included heart-stopping details. But the vets kept talking. Clearly, it was information they felt compelled to share.
Jason Washburn's testimony is preserved on the Internet. A Marine veteran from Philadelphia, he explained how the rules of engagement kept changing until it seemed there were no rules at all.
"If the town or the city that we were approaching was a known threat, if the unit that went through the area before we did took a high number of casualties, we were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted.
"I remember one woman was walking by, and she was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us. So we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher. And when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was only full of groceries. And, I mean, she had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces for it."
Jon Michael Turner, a Marine veteran from Vermont, described 3 a.m. house raids in which "problem" Iraqi men were subjected to his "choking hand."
It was tattooed in Arabic with an all-too-American epithet.
Turner recalled the first time he shot an Iraqi civilian. He offered no context or explanation except, "We were all congratulated after we had our first kills."
Turner also recalled the blind rage that led him and fellow Marines to start fights, spray bullets indiscriminately and fire on mosques. Eighteen men in his unit were killed by the enemy, he said. After that much bloodshed, the surviving soldiers were damaged mentally, if not physically.
"I just want to say that I'm sorry for the hate and destruction that I've inflicted on innocent people," said Turner, who began his speech by ripping off his service medals. "Until people hear about what is happening in this war, it will continue."
Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, read from a one-paragraph response to the conference:
"(We) always regret the loss of any innocent life in Iraq or anywhere else. The U.S. military takes enormous precautions to prevent civilian deaths and injuries. By contrast the enemy in Iraq takes no such precautions and deliberately targets innocent civilians. When isolated allegations of misconduct have been reported, commanders have conducted comprehensive investigations to determine the facts and held individuals accountable when appropriate."
The vast majority of American soldiers, Ballesteros added, serve honorably in combat.
The veterans who came to Maryland last month called their conference Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a sequel to a tense 1971 gathering in a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit, where more than 100 Vietnam vets braved frigid winter conditions to speak out against their war.
(Organizers of the original chose the title Winter Soldier Investigation to evoke Thomas Paine, who wrote in 1776, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.")
Navy Lt. John Kerry, the future U.S. senator and presidential candidate, attended that meeting and, a few months later, lambasted the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Proud American soldiers were reduced to acts of senseless destruction, Kerry told the senators, "not isolated incidents but crimes ... ."
Many Americans — still recovering from the news of the My Lai massacre — believed Kerry. But lingering resentment from his testimony may have cost him the 2004 presidential election.
During his campaign against President Bush, Vietnam vets still furious with Kerry for somehow staining their service records and their honor struck back. They claimed he wasn't a war hero, that he hadn't earned his multiple medals, that in fact, he'd awarded his medals to himself.
The topic is still red-hot, even today. Pennsylvania veteran Bill Perry, who campaigned for Kerry and attended both Winter Soldier meetings, offered his perspective: "Kerry came from a well-educated, wealthy family, and he could have ducked the whole thing. I respect the person who served."
The comment was aimed at President Bush, who did not fight in Vietnam or any war.
The latest Winter Soldier event coincided with national polls showing two-thirds of Americans disagree with the handling of the war but consider the economy and their own financial logjams more pressing than combat halfway around the world.
Viges, the veteran of the 82nd Airborne, struggled to understand that disconnect.
One of his jobs in Iraq was to stand guard with a .50-caliber machine gun while his buddies searched houses supposedly inhabited by insurgents and enemy combatants. At the conference, searches of that kind were described vividly. Sometimes soldiers kicked in the front doors. Sometimes they upended refrigerators and ripped stoves out of walls. Sometimes they turned drawers upside down and broke furniture.
One day Viges was instructed to search a suspicious house, a hut, really, but he couldn't find pictures of Saddam Hussein, piles of money, AK-47s or roadside bombs.
"The only thing I found was a little .22 pistol," Viges said, " ... but we ended up taking the two young men, regardless."
An older woman, probably the mother of the young men, watched and wailed nearby.
"She was crying in my face, trying to kiss my feet," Viges said. "And, you know, I can't speak Arabic, but I can speak human. She was saying, 'Please, why are you taking my sons? They have done nothing wrong.' "
The testimonials went on for 3 1/2 days. They were interrupted once, when a middle-age man leaped from his seat and ran toward the stage.
"Liars! Liars!" he shouted. "Kerry lied while good men died, and you guys are betraying good men."
Others among the counter-protesters tried for a more even tone.
Chris Eaton, a former Houstonian now living in Dallas, spoke for them when he described himself as an average guy doing his best to support American troops.
"I'm not hateful," he said. "I'm not a warmonger."
He's married and the father of three. For his little girl's seventh birthday, he welded a butterfly made of old car parts, plate steel and rebar.
But Eaton didn't travel halfway across the country to talk about butterflies. He wanted to lend his voice to the counter-protesters. He wanted to remind the anti-war vets that they needed to tell the absolute and precise truth or risk demoralizing their brothers and sisters still fighting overseas.
Eaton also wanted to support his friend, retired Army Col. Harry Riley, who organized the counter-protest and the sponsoring group, Eagles Up.
Riley is a decorated Vietnam vet. He's got a calm, mellifluous voice — until he flashes back to 1971.
"No one stood up for me or millions of others smeared by Kerry," Riley said. "That first Winter Soldier meeting was total bunk, denigration and falsehood. We want to ensure this second one meets our criteria for accuracy."
It is true, Perry said, that a few of the testimonies from '71 contained significant errors and should have been omitted. That's unfortunate, he said, but hardly surprising given the impromptu nature of that meeting. The great majority of the vets, Perry said, spoke the truth.
Did not, said Riley, referring to a government investigation of the most serious charges made in Detroit. Not one of the soldiers' testimonies was substantiated.
Perry noted that the investigation was conducted by Army personnel. In his opinion, the Army's investigation of itself was a joke.
With a wrench, Riley pushed the conversation back into the 21st century. If atrocities or war crimes are taking place in Iraq or Afghanistan, he said, service men and women are duty-bound to report them under oath and through official channels. Failure to do so, he added, means they are potential criminals themselves and subject to prosecution.
"Oh, great," retorted Hauff, the Houstonian. Soldiers aren't going to turn themselves in, and they're not going to report their peers or their superiors, either, he said.
"Nobody wants to be viewed as a snitch or a narc," Hauff said. And who, he asked, volunteers for a dock in pay or a loss of rank or a court-martial or worse?
"You're supposed to do what you're told in the military."
For vets who often feel isolated by their experiences and their memories, old war buddies are their best, most comfortable friends.
Viges greeted old friends joyously between sessions at the Winter Soldier conference. Many of them were vets from the Vietnam era.
"They are my fathers," he said.
After struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Viges said, he is somewhat better. He still jumps at the sound of fireworks, but he's stopped patrolling the perimeter of his house.
With shoulder-length, brown hair and a goatee, Viges looks very much like a model for velvet Jesus portraits. When he puts on his tunic and takes his anti-war campaign to the streets, he tells anyone who will listen, "Love thine enemy" and "Turn the other cheek."
A devout Christian, Viges finally left combat as a conscientious objector.
Cantu, the Fort Hood soldier, was one of several celebrity Texans at the conference. He says his pro-war sentiments changed 180 degrees the day he killed a civilian in Iraq. His convoy had been hit by an improvised explosive device, and he wanted revenge.
Next thing he knew, a car was coming toward them, and despite the warnings, it didn't stop.
Cantu opened fire. He didn't know until too late the car was filled with multiple members of an Iraqi family.
"I was literally on the verge of quitting (the military) right then and there," said Cantu, a third-generation military man.
Instead, he's spoken out against the war, through the protest chapter he founded and a 60 Minutes interview in 2007.
He occasionally comes to the attention of his superiors, too.
"All I've done is use my First Amendment rights," Cantu said. "I appreciate the Constitution. You can't really love it until you've actually been protected by it."
Cantu is scheduled to return to Iraq for his third tour of duty in early 2009.
"I've cheated death so many times," he said, suddenly somber. "I hope I can do it again."
Hauff, the Houston vet, didn't try to make it to Maryland. He had his hands full, with his job, his wife and his little girl. Besides, he didn't want to talk about the ugly side of war.
His best friend was on patrol, subbing for Hauff, when he was killed.
Hauff paused, keeping the many things he thought about that tragedy to himself. He had his emotions under control, he said, and he's moved on with his life.
His mother-in-law, sipping coffee and listening to him, cocked her head as if she didn't quite agree.
That year in Iraq changed him, Sherry Glover said. He doesn't like to be touched. He can be impatient with the people, even the child he loves the most. It's almost like he's barricaded himself inside an invisible fence that has a sign: "Keep out."
When Hauff finished talking, he frowned at his mother-in-law and walked away. They're sharing the same house, at least until Hauff and his family can afford to move.
Military families are paying for this war, Glover said darkly. She has a friend whose son tried to commit suicide between tours of duty. Army doctors gave him a bunch of prescriptions and deemed him ready to serve.
Glover couldn't go to the conference — she wanted to keep an eye on things at home — and made do by listening to the testimony on the local Pacifica radio station, KPFT-90.1 FM.
She and many other peace activists wondered why only a couple of outlets in the mainstream media covered the event.
The vets also wondered what all the other newspapers, magazines and TV stations were afraid of. The truth?
That's not it, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
The gathering was tiny, Sabato said, in comparison to protests from the Vietnam era. Also, activists on both sides of the war have moved the debate to the presidential campaign.
President Bush has been unequivocal in his support for the war, Sabato said, and those who share that commitment will vote Republican. Those who oppose the war will vote for the Democrat.
It's not that Americans don't have an opinion, he said. They're just waiting for Election Day.
This article was originally published by the Statesman.com, February 19, 2008
To a packed classroom of students and community members in the communications building at UT this past Saturday, a panel of two active duty army soldiers, two Iraq war veterans and a long-time PTSD counselor shared their experiences about Iraq and expressed a common goal: bring the troops home now.
While a thunderstorm boomed outside, the panelists described the kinds of storms they have weathered in Iraq as well as interior storms that still sometimes rage inside them. The types of experiences they shared were not new to me, but for these young veterans, speaking about the war in a public setting was relatively new to them. As visiting active duty Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) organizer, Selena Coppa, pointed out during the Q & A, the courage and integrity involved in speaking out are among the values they pledge to uphold in the military. “How often have we been told: “Take the hard right, not the easy wrong.’”
Ronn Cantu, just back from his second tour in Iraq, spoke first. Casey Porter, expecting an imminent second deployment to Iraq, spoke last. Along with a third colleague, Cantu and Porter just this month co-founded Chapter 38 of Iraq Veterans Against the War at Ft. Hood, the fourth active duty IVAW chapter nationally.
Cantu, who enlisted in the US Army in 1998, said, “If Jesus Christ had told me as I was walking into that recruiting station that 10 years later I’d be an anti-war activist, I wouldn’t have believed him.” Cantu was discharged from the Army in 2002, but re-enlisted the next year because he believed the threats that Colin Powell insisted Iraq posed to the world. On Valentine’s Day, 2004, he arrived in Kuwait, but by that point, he said, he was already skeptical. Once in Iraq, maneuvers such as convoys driving down the middle of roads, forcing local traffic to the sides, caused him to realize “the disconnect between the rhetoric of why we were there” and what he was seeing. He and other soldiers began to raise questions about the occupation “one sentence at a time, like ‘Do you think we’re just here defending ourselves?’” The senselessness, he said, caused troops to do things they wouldn’t have done normally. “It’s easy to take out our frustrations on the native population. There was a push to just detain people because it gave the patrols a purpose – it helped us get through each day.”
Two Iraq vets from Texas State University spoke next. Greg Foster enlisted at age 23 with “a swell of patriotism” in 2003. He was deployed to Iraq in the summer of ’04 and engaged in gun battles in a Shiite neighborhood of East Baghdad for about 4 months. He didn’t see improvement, and when a young boy on a bicycle asked him one day, “Mista, mista, why you in my country?” he realized he didn’t have a satisfactory answer for him. Once back in the US and discharged in August ’06, Foster said he didn’t talk about Iraq. “When I got out of the army, I tried to separate myself from my experiences,” he said. But, when he visited some friends at Ft. Hood recently, he said he felt himself become reconnected, which made him want to do what he could to end the war that had taken lives of people he knew. He spoke the name of one friend who had been killed in Iraq, and the tears came.
Brian Henrietta, also a student at TSU, said that he enlisted prior to 9-11, mostly because he needed the college money. When he was deployed to Iraq, he said, “I wanted to trust the president. Who doesn’t want to trust the president?” He served as a journalist in the military, towing “the company line” but questioning things privately. He said that their military reports were often “sanitized, controlled messages - complete fluff.” A pool of Iraqi journalists would come onto his base and were paid to write positive stories about the occupation. If they wrote negative stories, they were kicked out. Henrietta wondered what democratic reforms the US was really encouraging in Iraq. “The base of a democracy is a free and fair press,” he said – and that’s not what he experienced there. Now at TSU, he is active with a campus group that has been working to register student voters. In 3 months, they have registered 6,000 students, he said.
Next on the panel was Karen Hutchins, a counselor specializing in PTSD who has been working with trauma patients for 35 years.
She believes that even with the increased awareness and press coverage of PTSD among returning Iraq war veterans, PTSD is still “way under-diagnosed” by the military. She said that the core feeling leading to PTSD is helplessness: the lack of clear missions and clear ‘enemies’ and the feeling of being in danger at all times. She said that when soldiers take out their frustration on the local population, she understands why. “It’s a natural response to an abnormal experience.” PTSD can literally alter the body’s endocrine system, she said. “It’s destructive to the mind, body and soul.” In her experience, PTSD is not cured; it is managed. She uses a “returning warriors program” that she finds more effective than prescribing medications to control symptoms. When the issue of substance abuse came up, the vets and soldiers on the panel nodded, two of them confessing to their own self-medicated “drunken hazes.”
The panelists also spoke about ways that, beginning with basic training, soldiers are inculcated with the notion that civilians and soldiers are separate and that civilians are not to be trusted – not only in Iraq but in the US as well. “They tell you that your girlfriend is going to cheat on you. Anti-war people are going to spit on you.” Soldiers are trained, when breaking into homes in Iraq, to display an aggressive “violence of action” – that is, shouting, being rough, breaking things, tearing things up. They are trained to look at civilians’ hands, not their faces.
Casey Porter wound up the panel by showing several videos he has made – in Iraq and at Ft. Hood – to give us a more vivid picture of what the consequences of “violence of action” look like. He described his own experiences in Iraq, where his unit took over a group of dirt-floored farmers’ houses. He talked about house raids, where “nine times out of ten, you don’t find anything in the homes – not even a gun – just terrified kids, women, families.” One video he made was a tribute to friends who were killed in Iraq. His emotion, when remembering his friends, is still fresh.
For Porter and his colleagues on the panel, trying to get the truth out about the realities on the ground in Iraq is their way of honoring their friends – trying to prevent more deaths by working to end the war now.
A growing number of active duty soldiers or recent Iraq war veterans are speaking up about the war in Iraq.
And with the number of soldiers speaking up about their experiences in Iraq via online forums, blogs and pamphlets, some vets feel it's their duty to let the American public know the truth.
"The honest truth is that if the American people knew what was going on over there everyday, they would be raising their voices too. They would be saying, 'Hey, bring those guys home," Sgt. Selena Coppa said.
Coppa blames lawmakers in Washington for filtering the facts on the war in Iraq. She said there's no real end in sight.
"There is a cost to this war. This war is being paid in American blood, in my soldier's blood. And that is not okay," Coppa said.
"We lost really good friends, really good leaders who died in Iraq. From my perspective, it didn't make any sense, we didn't
accomplish anything, and I talked to a lot of other soldiers who feel the same way," Fort Hood soldier Casey Porter said.
He started the local branch of IVAW at Fort Hood.
Porter is spending his numbered days in the U.S. passing out pamphlets before he is redeployed this summer.
He said he feels it's his obligation to his fallen brothers to take action. Local IVAW members are trying to let other soldiers know it's okay to do the same.
"This is well within the rights that service members have, but not many soldiers know that they do have," Fort Hood soldier Ronn Cantu said.
He's also home between deployments to Iraq.
"I honestly thought I might not live through my second tour, so I thought, you know if I'm going to die anyway, I need to say the things I need to say," Cantu said.
Those things are now being said loud and clear.
Sunday, a group took part in what they call a blitz, plastering busy areas of Killeen with informational pamphlets about their mission, and soldiers' rights.